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Grief Project Aims to Help Locals Cope with Loss in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life as we know it, and the loss we feel, individually and collectively, is real.
CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Sarah Munsen, social services manager at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, about a new grief project that aims to help contributors cope with loss—to help themselves, and possibly the community at large.

Munsen We started it really to be a clearing house for people to have an opportunity to express the things that they felt that they had lost to COVID. What we were noticing is that people were very comfortable talking about certain types of loss. If, for example, if a family member had died or been very ill, that was kind of a loss that people felt they could acknowledge and share.

But, then there were all of these other losses, things like not getting to hug your mom, not getting to take your daughter on a play date, having to cancel a trip you were really excited about. And, we found that people were having a hard time identifying that as grief and as loss. They were kind of shaming and blaming themselves for having a strong emotional reaction to that.

So, we really wanted to normalize that grief and loss around COVID as look like lots of different things. And, we created the COVID Grief Project to give people an opportunity to tell us about all of the different things that they had lost to COVID and have that opportunity to share and hear from people in their community that they, too, were struggling with a multitude of different losses.

Eident Are you seeing any themes emerge?

Munsen I think that people are really feeling isolated and really struggling with how to stay connected to people during COVID. I think people are also experiencing a kind of cultural frustration. There's a kind of patriotic sense of disappointment that the United States just didn't get a handle on this very well. I think that pride in your country, when you start to lose that, I think that that also has an emotional toll on people.

Eident Yeah, it's kind of a piece of our identity that's deep within our psyche that maybe we don't even realize we have until we are compared on a worldwide scale, and it's not a favorable picture.

Munsen Exactly. I think there are a lot of Americans who are not used to feeling like they're not the best.

Eident What kinds of things are people submitting?

Munsen So we've had everything from drawings to poetry to text. And, we really welcome all of it.

And, then in terms of how we're going to be using it as part of the hospital's campaign, I think that we will find certain submissions that lend themselves well to the format that we're going to be presenting the material.

Eident And, what is your thinking about their motivation for contributing and kind of digging into emotions that can be really tricky to talk about.

Munsen I look at a little bit like a lower risk version is going to therapy. So, when I was a practicing therapist, I would hear this from new patients and they would say, "I just need to talk to somebody who's not part of my life, and then I need to walk away and go back to my regular life."

So, I think we're offering people a scaled version of that. And, I think that there's a big cultural precedence for that. So, for example, memorials where people are marking the place that a loved one died on the side of the road. Where people are wanting to acknowledge that loss, but they're not necessarily wanting to carry that symbolism around with them every day. Or, going and visiting someone's grave. You have a place to go for your grief. And I think sometimes allowing yourself that separation, some people find that very helpful.

Eident As a social worker, what are you thinking about in terms of coping with the stress of the pandemic and the continued grief? How do you think about that, and talk about that, with clients or friends and family and even coworkers?

Munsen It's a very interesting experience to be a social worker who, on the one hand, is living through the pandemic as a person, and then to be in real time trying to give people advice about how to manage their emotional experience of the pandemic.

Some of what I've learned so far is, helping people understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And, they may feel that they have no opportunity to take a break or take a rest. You have to carve out a break, because if you don't, you are going to--at some point your body is going to take one for you, whether you like it or not. The concept of "find your meaning and purpose, and let's really look at your coping skills," sometimes that's a little bit too cerebral for the really profound level of physical reaction that people are having to the COVID pandemic.

Eident Sarah Munsen of Nantucket Cottage Hospital, thanks so much for talking with us.

Munsen Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and give your listeners an opportunity to hear about the COVID Grief Project.

The Nantucket Grief Project is open to the public. Email submissions to nantucketcovidgrief@gmail.com.

This conversation was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.